The announcement that the Trump administration will be closing the PLO mission in Washington is more a symbolic act than one that might hurt the daily lives of Palestinians. The mission’s offices, according to the Palestinians themselves, don’t serve as a consulate or an embassy. Rather, they focus more on public relations and presenting the Palestinian narrative to the American public, members of Congress and the media, as well as to administration officials still willing to hear the Palestinian story.
Over the years, the impact of the mission’s work hasn’t really been felt on public opinion or decision-makers. The main PR efforts have been made by senior officials like Saeb Erekat, Hanan Ashrawi and Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki. PR efforts have also been in the hands of the Palestinian mission at the United Nations.
After after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appointed Husam Zomlot as the Palestinian representative in Washington. Zomlot, who had previously served as Abbas’ strategic adviser and speaks fluent English, breathed new life into the mission. He uses social media extensively and has made frequent appearances in the U.S. and international media to convey the Palestinians’ messages and official stances on key issues in the conflict.
Zomlot said this week that one reason for closing the PLO offices was that the administration had sensed a turning point in American public opinion regarding the Palestinian position. Whether or not this is true, the Palestinian leadership regards the decision a direct result of the Trump administration's policy against the Palestinians over the past year, in an effort to coerce the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
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These conditions are considered those that Israel seeks to promote; they don’t include the 1967 borders, Jerusalem as the capital or a right of return. And so the Palestinian dream would be reduced to extended civil administration in the West Bank and a kind of state in the Gaza Strip.
As expected, Palestinian leaders responded angrily to the announcement but said they didn’t intend to give in to American dictates and extortion by Trump. Still, the leaders in Ramallah know full well that the PLO, as the Palestinians’ umbrella organization, and the Palestinian Authority as the contractor for Fatah policy and for Abbas don’t have the tools to deal with a power like the United States and with a strong country like Israel without passive support in the international community and the Arab and Islamic world.
Such support is currently at the declarative level but it’s unlikely to be translated any time soon into practical action either on the diplomatic or economic fronts. For example, the Palestinians could be very satisfied if in response to the American declaration, European countries like France, Germany and Britain recognized a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders.
It could also be satisfied if the wealthy Arab countries showed some independence vis-a-vis the United States and extended a safety net to UNRWA and the PA so that the American decision would actually highlight the isolation of the United States, not that of the Palestinians.
As of today it’s unclear whether in Europe and the Arab and Islamic world such steps will be taken, and whether leaders there will have the courage to challenge aggressive interlocutors like Trump and his national security adviser, John Bolton. It’s doubtful that the Palestinians have a plan for such a state of affairs.
However, some Palestinians see the American actions as a window of opportunity for a strategic change vis-a-vis the United States and Israel, letting the Palestinians free themselves from the economic and security reliance dictated by Washington after the Oslo Accords. Some say this situation could lead to moves in Palestinian politics to heal rifts and resuscitate Palestinian national institutions.
In about two weeks, Abbas will once again stand at the UN podium and speak to the world. He’s one of the people who 25 years ago signed the Oslo Accords in the hope that this would be the opening toward a Palestinian state. He understands that this won’t happen in the foreseeable future, and he’ll have to say where he’s heading diplomatically and perhaps also personally, because not only the world but also the Palestinian people are asking for answers.